by James Coulter
Despite the protests of concerned citizens, Lake Wales City Commissioners unanimously voted to approve an ordinance that would more easily permit a controversial manufacturing plant to set up shop alongside residential neighborhoods.
During their meeting on Monday evening, with a unanimous vote of 5-0, the Lake Wales City Commission approved the second reading of an ordinance correcting a “scrivener’s error” in the City Code, a correction which changes the zoning of heavy manufacturing from “special exception use permit” to “permitted.”
Essentially, the change to the city code would permit decisions concerning proposed heavy manufacturing projects to be made administratively through city staff. Previously, such proposals were decided upon through public hearings by the city commission.
Initially, the Lake Wales Planning and Zoning Board had rejected the ordinance through a 4-1 vote during their meeting last month, and they had recommended that the city commission vote against it. Regardless, the City Commission voted unanimously to make the opposite vote.
The change to city code has proven controversial, as many residents fear it would essentially “fast track” the approval of a major manufacturing plant proposed at a nearly 100-acre site located along Hunt Brothers Road near US Highway 27.
The proposed plant would manufacture plastic pipes used for stormwater projects. The pipes would be created through recycled plastic pellets transported via rail and delivered via trucks. Proponents claim the plant would bring jobs, while opponents argue it would bring pollution and traffic congestion.
Last week, a town hall-style presentation was hosted by representatives from Advanced Drainage Solutions (ADS), the company proposing the plant, to answer questions and address concerns from residents. ADS representatives averred that their plant produced zero emissions, zero hazardous waste, and products that were 100 percent recycled and chemical free.
However, many residents remained skeptical and voiced their concerns during the public comments portion of the city commission meeting before the commissioners voted on the ordinance.
Charlene Bennett asked the city commissioners if they would approve building the plant near their own homes. She asserted that they would not, which is why they should vote against the ordinance. Furthermore, she averred that approving the proposed plant would be “racist”, as it would most negatively effect communities of color.
“Today, it is more subtle, but it is still there,” she said. “I think there is racism in this ADS project, and that is why I think it is able to move forward…The planning and zoning board made the right decision for you, you simply have to follow their lead.”
Cassandra Richards stood by that claim. As a woman of color who has lived in Lake Wales most of her life, first near Florida Natural, and now near the site of the proposed plant, she claims that the plant will only benefit people in power and hurt people of color and poor working-class white people.
“So who gains from this?” she asked. “The people with money in their pockets, the doctors, and pharmaceuticals…You are gaining it off the poor people, and it ain’t right.”
Becky Winecoop had spoken against the proposed plant at previous city commission meetings. She has since resigned the fact that the ordinance would be approved and that the plant would inevitably be approved likewise. However, she insisted she will never forget the city commissioner’s decision.
“I will remember the pipe plant discourse, about how the commission rarely, if ever, addressed the concerns of the people,” she said.
Javier Marin, Vice President of Business Development at the Central Florida Development Council, was the only person to speak in favor of approving the ordinance. He claimed that manufacturing projects like the proposed plant would not only create immediate jobs for the plant but also help create and support other jobs in other industries. He claimed such “economic diversification” was vital to growing the Lake Wales community.